I have spent almost 35 years in this great and wonderful community. I have been both a witness to -- and participant in -- the enormous changes that have taken place here. Together we have shared the burdens and the benefits inherent in an emerging urban culture. Through the ebb and flow of our times, this community has been transformed from a provincial backwater into the centerpiece of one of the nation's most dynamic regions. We have been blessed with growth, diversity and prosperity that is almost without peer.
But is it really a blessing?
Everywhere one can see the symbols of material progress. We have statistics to prove it. They have helped persuade us of our well-being. As Gordon Allport once said, "given a thimbleful of facts, we rush to make generalizations as big as a tub."
Were this the only measurement of progress we would be justified in our sense of well-being. But economics and edifices are deceptive, if not spurious, indices of social harmony.
To be blunt, the social fabric of this community is in an extremely tenuous condition. The gap between social groups in the metropolitan Washington area is wider and potentially more dangerous than at any time in the past decade.
We must face this fact -- and we must move rationally and realistically to resolve it.
This is not the view of an alarmist. It is a view shared by people who have taken the time to probe the questions and to begin finding the answers. For some time now, a number of this community's most responsible public and private leaders have been engaged in assessing the problem -- and, more important, determining the courses of action necessary to alleviate it. One conclusion stands out: this community has not only failed to remove many of its longstanding social ills, but is has acquired new ones in the process.
Let me be quite specific.
Despite the real economic progress in our midst, it remains a veneer that still does not penetrate deeply enough for many groups. In fact, the more highly polished the surface has become, the more pronounced are the differences and distinctions between those who have -- and those who don't. The gulf is growing deeper. We talk today of the strain that is being placed upon those with middle incomes. That means that the position of those with low incomes -- or no incomes -- is simply untenable. p
We face the possible breakdown of our social programs. Budgeting restraints at every level of government may cause increased suffering, anxiety and pressure. This community has been struggling for years to reduce outrageous levels of minority youth unemployment. But we have made only a dent. And now we are confronted by an even more serious dilemma -- a significant increase in the number of unemployed heads of households.
Full voting rights in Congress and in natinal elections remains a stumbling block in the District of Columbia. Affordable housing, affordable health care, quality education and improved public safety continue to dominate the public agenda in every corner of the metropolitan area.
Along the way, these and other problems are changing the traditional relationships between social groups. There has been a turning inward -- a subtle retreat into the estuaries of racial and ethnic protection and prejudice. It is an old pattern, but it has reared its head again in this community. Old racial epithets and religious slurs are part of a new vocabulary. Prejudice has always been a great labor-saving device: it enables one to form opinions without having to dig up the facts.
Who among us cannot identify with the poet A. E. Houseman's lines, "I, a stranger and afraid/in a world I never made"? Yet who among us is willing to countenance the less lyrical notion that, for some people, the inescapable conclusion about their world is that other people just plain don't give a damn.
The rather unflattering picture I have sketched may be at variance with what some people really see -- or want to see. There are, no doubt, some who would say they "understand," but that there are other fish to be fried today. I say to them that unless they act, there is the possibility that tomorrow we shall have no fish to fry at all.
The future of this community is, as much as anything, predicated on a social progress commensurate with any other kind of progress we may experience. Interdependence and interrelationships are the foundations of any true sense and semblance of well-being. Economic vitality and political power are ephemeral by comparison.
Intergroup relations in our community must not only be restored to their once healthier condition, but also be elevated to new levels of strength and common purpose. The key is communication: the ability to talk with one another, to exchange opinions and facts, to be concerned and to listen to concerns.
That is what is being done now among certain leaders and leading organizations in the community. The private sector has good reason to be a major participant in this dialogue: the bread and butter elements of the equation are fast descending on its shoulders.
The answers are not going to be easy to find. But it will be easier if people and groups and organizations -- public and private alike -- work together.
I am hopeful that others will join in the process. I think that the president and members of Congress would find it useful to sit down with key people in this community -- to listen and learn along with us. What we face here cannot be too far afield from what is being faced in one way or another by many communities across the nation. It might provide insight. It might lessen perception of insensitivity. It just might result in a new inspiration.